The Charge of Antinomianism (8): Assurance by Works

The book by Mark Jones, purporting to be a tool to discover antinomianism in the preaching and teaching of ministers and in the faith of believers, turns out to be a full-blown attack on the doctrines of grace. This attack continues with his assault on the precious Reformed doctrine of assurance.

Because the Reformed faith teaches that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone and not by works, it gives assurance and comfort to the child of God. Such is the close and necessary connection between the truth and assurance, that the Heidelberg Catechism treats all of Reformed doctrine from the viewpoint of the subjective, experiential comfort the believer has in that doctrine. Belonging to that comfort is the truth that while he is renewed by the Spirit of Christ and lives unto God in all good works, those works are not the ground of his salvation. They are the fruits of faith. So essential is assurance to the child of God that without it there is no Christian life. The very concern that Mark Jones purportedly has with his book is holiness. But true holiness is the fruit of assurance. The Canons of Dordt say in 5.12, “This certainty of perseverance…is the real source of humility, filial reverence, true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering and in confessing the truth, and of a solid rejoicing in God.”

The faith that produces fruits from the living root, Jesus Christ, is assurance. Assurance is of the essence of faith. That assurance belongs to the essence of faith is a fact that is so clear in the Reformed creeds that a man who contradicts it cannot be taken seriously as a student and adherent to the Reformed creeds. The Heidelberg Catechism says, “True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed in his Word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart” (A 21). Twice the creed says faith is assurance. It is assured knowledge, and it is assured confidence. A man who denies that assurance is of the essence of faith is left with no faith. The Canons say nothing different in head 5. Assurance is obtained “according to the measure of their [true believers] faith.” It “springs from faith in God’s promises.” The Canons call it “the full assurance of faith” (9–11), which does not mean that faith sometimes has less and sometimes more assurance, or the obnoxious notion that believers must go on a quest for the full assurance of faith, but it means that faith itself, according to its very nature, is fully assured and has no doubt.

That the creeds also connect works with faith is unsurprising, because the man who believes also performs good works. According to the Heidelberg Catechism, good works are the fruits of faith that a man observes in himself (A 86) and that proceed from a “serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience and to perform good works” (Canons 5.10). What is that but faith in a man and what else in a man except faith can even perceive these things? The creeds do not lodge assurance in works or make assurance dependent on those works, but faith is assurance worked in believers by the Holy Ghost, and the creeds make that assurance the essence of faith to which works are a kind of assistant.

This clear fact Mark Jones is bold to deny. He favorably quotes Joel Beeke’s view of assurance, which is based on his study of the Puritan theology of doubt: “Scholars who assert that assurance is essential to faith in Christ and that sanctification cannot forward assurance in any way are guilty…of separating Christ and his benefits.”[1] This statement is not altogether straightforward. It is not a matter of asserting that assurance is essential to faith AND saying that sanctification cannot forward assurance. Rather, one who denies that assurance is of the essence of faith must necessarily find assurance elsewhere. If assurance is not in faith, the issue is not whether sanctification can forward assurance; but since assurance is not in faith, must it necessarily be found in works? Jones says therefore that “faith and the full assurance of faith are not strictly synonymous.”

He tries to find support for this fiction, too, in the creeds. He says, “The Westminster divines, by noting that infallible assurance does not belong to the essence of faith (18.3), affirm the distinction between adherence and assurance.” This distinction between adherence and assurance is an invention by the theologians of doubt. By means of it these theologians “differentiate between the faith of adherence to Christ and the faith of assurance (evidence) in Christ, whereby the believer knows that Christ has died specifically for him.”

The distinction is a bald contradiction of the description of faith in the Heidelberg Catechism as “assured confidence….that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits” (A 21). This is not one aspect of faith that one might arrive at after years of doubt, but it is faith, the faith that a small child has and that every believer has.

The distinction between adherence and assurance and the blatant denial that assurance does not belong to the essence of faith also do not find any support in the Westminster Confession of Faith 18.3, which Mark Jones cites to prop up this distinction. That part of the creed reads: “This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be a partaker thereof.” Contra Mark Jones the article does not flatly say that infallible assurance does not belong to the essence of faith. Rather, the article affirms that infallible assurance belongs to the essence of faith. It says that infallible assurance, however, does not “so belong” to the essence of faith, thereby noting an exception that “may” be the case, such as when the miserable preacher of the poor believer constantly tells him that it is pious to doubt, that “mere faith” is not enough, that he could not possibly be assured yet, and that to suppose so is spiritual pride. The exception noted is nothing different from what the Canons affirm in 5.11: “the scripture moreover testifies that believers in this life have to struggle with various carnal doubts, and that under grievous temptation they are not always sensible of this full assurance of faith.” The problem is not faith or the fact that faith is not “full assurance.” That problem is the believer and his carnal doubts. The Reformed creeds testify that faith is assurance. They do that in harmony with scripture: what else could the scriptures mean when they say in Romans 5:1, “being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”? Assurance is by faith, specifically being justified by faith, that gives peace—real, total, subjective peace—with the living God in the conscience of the believer.

Denying that assurance is of the essence of faith, it is disingenuous of Jones to defend his doctrine by saying that “a focus on good works as a ground for assurance of faith does not necessarily turn the believer away from Christ” or that “that God is gracious and has given his people many means by which they may have this infallible assurance of salvation.”[2] He makes it seem as though he is only presenting works as one of the grounds of assurance. Along with all the theologians of doubt, though, he denies the essential thing, that faith is assurance. Faith as to its very nature is full assurance. Because he denies this, he and the rest of the theologians of doubt have to concoct a whole other ground of assurance. If faith is not assurance—faith as such, faith as to its nature—assurance must come from works. Indeed, faith itself becomes a work upon which assurance is based. He sees both faith and works as conditions, or acts of man, upon which man’s salvation depends, so that even when he says “faith,” he makes it a work. Faith as a work is the means of assurance, not faith as such is assurance.

To deny that assurance is of the essence of faith also removes from assurance its essential and first part, namely, that the believer’s sins are forgiven by faith only. Without the truth of justification by faith alone the assurance of salvation is impossible, because being justified by faith alone the believer has peace with God. That assured peace with God by faith alone includes the knowledge that Christ died for me to forgive my sins, that all my sins are forgiven for his sake, that God loves me, and that he loved me from all eternity. Only on this basis can the believer even consider his works, which are also polluted and defiled by sin. If assurance is not of the essence of faith, one must necessarily be assured of his forgiveness by his works too. It is necessary in order to speak of works in connection with assurance that the first part, assurance as belonging to the essence of faith, be established.

This theology of doubt and assurance by works, then, are one with the rest of Jones’ theology. One who espouses justification by works, or is friendly with those who do, of necessity must deny that assurance is of the essence of faith in order to lodge assurance in works. But assurance by works is no assurance at all.

Such a teacher of works, and foe of grace, has no business telling Reformed believers who the antinomians are. His charge of antinomianism is false and can safely be dismissed.

To that I will turn next time.

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[1] Jones, Antinomianism, 99.

[2] Ibid., 108.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section on the RFPA blog.

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